NC superintendent defends school finance website as critics call data deceptive

May 7, 2019

When State Superintendent Mark Johnson debuted a new website last month showcasing the finances of every public school system in the state, he lauded the site as a new, transparent way for the public to see how schools spend taxpayer money.

But since its launch, critics have accused the superintendent of presenting the data in a “misleading” and “deceptive” way, especially as it relates to teacher salaries. At issue is how the N.C. School Finances website compares average teacher salaries to median household income and wages across the state.

Here is a breakdown of what the finance website shows, why critics take issue with the data and the superintendent’s response to the criticism.

The site debuted in late April and shows financial info for every school system in the state, including average teacher salaries, textbook funding and class sizes. Similar to the state’s School Report Card website, the new dashboard allows state and local leaders, researchers, news media, community members, and educators and parents to learn more about the funding that goes into, and is spent on, the state’s K-12 public schools.

Visitors to the homepage of the NC School Finances website are greeted by a video of the state superintendent alongside data comparing North Carolina’s average teacher salary to median income and wages in the state, broken down the following way:

Soon after the website’s launch, Lauren Fox, senior director of policy at the Public School Forum of North Carolina, wrote on Twitter that it “is not appropriate” to compare average salaries of one group to the median salary for the other.

“These are two separate calculations. The median wage is the salary that falls in the middle of the distribution for all employees in a given category, rather than the average,” Fox wrote. “The median value is less likely to be skewed by wages at the top of the distribution as a result.”

A spokesman for the state superintendent said they considered using median teacher salary from 2017-18, “but the standard going back decades, mostly driven by the NEA’s [National Education Association] annual report on average teacher compensation and widely accepted by the news media, is to report average teacher salary.”

“Switching from the common practice would cause confusion, but fortunately, we know that in this case the median and the mean are very close (since the teacher salary schedule precludes outliers that would skew the mean),” Drew Elliot, communications director for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, told WRAL News by email.

In an interview with WRAL anchor Debra Morgan, the state superintendent defended comparing the average and the median:

The state Department of Public Instruction was not able to provide North Carolina’s 2018-19 median teacher salary, saying the figure will be computed after this school year. However, the agency was able to calculate the 2017-18 median salary and provided the following information:

To determine North Carolina’s median wage, the state Department of Public Instruction used the five-year estimate of the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census.

Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, called the income comparisons “deceptive and inappropriate” and accused the state superintendent of “statistical gaslighting.”

In an opinion article on WRAL.com and NC Policy Watch, Nordstrom explained his issues with the data comparisons:

Nordstrom said a better comparison would be one used by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute.

The superintendent’s spokesman pushed back, saying several critics have pulled “the same stunt” in reviewing the data.

“They point out areas that would tend to pull a figure in one direction while omitting areas that would tend to pull it in the opposite direction,” Elliot wrote. “Two examples: Some have pointed out that individual income data includes part-time workers (tending to decrease the median) without mentioning that the measures also include households with two full-time earners (tending to increase the median). Some have pointed out average teacher pay doesn’t include locally funded teachers, who tend to be lower-paid, but fail to mention that it also doesn’t include federally paid teachers, who tend to be higher-paid.”

Elliot provided the following for context:

“No,” the superintendent’s spokesman wrote, bolding the word for effect – principal and administrators’ salaries are not included in the average teacher pay calculation.

To determine average teacher pay, the state Department of Public Instruction collects payroll data for every traditional public school teacher in the state. Their pay is then audited to make sure each teacher is paid according to their license and years of experience and to make sure they have the appropriate licensure. Using December payroll data, because the population is fairly stable that month, the salary data is downloaded into a mainframe program, which calculates the average.

Since teachers are paid in a variety of ways, the agency breaks down the compensation into 12 categories to show how the average is calculated:

The state superintendent released the school finance website on April 25, less than a week before the May 1 teacher rally, which drew thousands of educators to Raleigh. So, was the website’s release timed to influence the rally?

“No, we have actually been planning that to be in late April for over a year now,” Johnson told WRAL News. “That website took over a year to develop, and it was always on the books for late April, because we wanted it to be the week after most spring breaks were over and people were back in school, going into these budget discussions.”

The superintendent “is interested in laying out the facts – good and bad,” his spokesman said.

“He is lobbying the legislature for aggressive increases to educator compensation, and he is also joining with other educators, community and business leaders to counter the negative narratives about the teaching profession via the soon-to-be-launched TeachNC effort,” Elliot wrote. “Students and parents need to know that teaching is a great career choice. We need great teachers in our classrooms, and the facts show that while more needs to be done, we are on the right track.”

The N.C. School Finances site was developed in partnership with the Government Data Analytics Center of the N.C. Department of Information Technology and Cary-based SAS. It’s part of the multimillion-dollar, multi-year School Business Systems Modernization program that the General Assembly has funded to modernize systems including financial and payroll information, human resources information, and capital and repairs and renovations planning information systems at both the state and school district levels.

According to the NC School Finances website: